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Fenwick & West's Free Style

Vivia Chen

August 10, 2011

Fenwick_Web The Careerist is venturing out West today to talk with the co-chairs of hiring at Fenwick & West, William Hughes and Jay Pomeranz,  in Mountain View, California. Founded in 1972, this 270-lawyer firm is one of the original stalwarts of Silicon Valley.

Is Fenwick the antithesis of the New York firm? For instance, what kind of person would want to come here instead of a big Wall Street firm?
JP: We're focused on technology and life science, so our client base is very different from New York. The firm culture reflects our Silicon Valley client base, meaning they are self-starters and informal. We get very smart people who don't take themselves seriously.

So lawyers here feel a strong identification with the clients. Does that mean your lawyers are also nerdy tech types?
JP: Our attorneys think it's fun to work for cutting-edge tech companies. Not having a tech background is not a disadvantage. People who do well in law school can figure things out. People here are interested in technology, but they also have interests outside of work, which the firm embraces. We have a band called Funkwick & West. For a bunch of lawyers, they are pretty good.

If people have time to practice with the firm band, the hours must be much saner here than New York, right?
JP: Hour for hour, the highest billables probably come from New York. There's definitely an emphasis on work and personal life here. Most firms say that they honor work/life balance, but as a law student you have to judge for yourself what are aspirational goals and what's reality.

So you're saying that associates have greater control here. How's that?
WH: Associates can select one of two tracks. They can bill lower hours and get paid less.

Really? What's the cutoff for high and low billables?
WH: 1,800 hours for low; 1,950 hours for high. 

Do you have to pay your dues before you can choose? And if you pick the lower hours option, does that take you out of the partnership track?
WH: It does not affect partnership chances. First-year associates can elect the 1,800-hour commitment, but rarely do because we give them a break for getting used to the practice. There is no downside for missing their 1,950-hour commitment so long as they are occupied with education, pro bono, etc. We adopted this approach at our associates’ suggestion when salaries and hours targets jumped up in 1999. We find that our associates appreciate having the option to trade lower compensation for a lower hours target.

But what happens if you sign up for the lower hours, then end up billing the higher one? 
WH: Our associates make a billable hour commitment on an annual basis and are paid according to their election, with a “true up” for those that elect the lower hours commitment but bill above it.

Let's switch to your competitors for a moment. Your firm, Wilson Sonsini, and Cooley are often mentioned in the same breath. So how can recruits tell you guys apart?
WH: At Fenwick, associates benefit from the "free market" system, where associates can work with any partner or type of client they choose. That gives associates a lot of control over their careers.

Whoa--when you say associates are in control, does that mean they can really say no to partners?
WH: Yes, but it's a fine art. Generally, if an associate says no, it's respected. . . . That's especially true at times of high workloads. 
JP: It's a two-way street. I can reach out to associates that I like, and associates can reach out to those who they think are good mentors. This is a busy time for Silicon Valley. When you have a busy market, it's optimal for associates, and they can steer their careers.


See other hiring partner interviews: Baker BottsBoies, Schiller; Debevoise & Plimpton; Jones DayK&L Gates; Kramer LevinPaul, HastingsPepper Hamilton; Quinn Emanuel; Sidley & AustinSkadden; Susman Godfrey; and Vinson & Elkins.


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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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